By: Thomas Hoffman
We know that cats keep mice away. But did you know that they can also help prevent asthma in newborns? That is the conclusion of a new study by scientists from the Copenhagen Studies on Asthma in Childhood Research Center (COPSAC), Denmark.
Cats neutralise the effect of a gene that, when activated, doubles the risk of developing asthma in children.
Having a cat in the home when a child is born means that this gene is never activated.
The result surprised co-author Hans Bisgaard, professor of paediatrics and the head of COPSAC. Not because the results will lead to any new treatments—they will not—but because the study shows that the genes behind a disease can be switched on or off depending on the environment around us.
“For me, this is the core message because it’s a recognition in the direction of how disease occurs. It documents the interplay between genetics and the environment we live in, and in particular that this occurs very early in life, both during pregnancy and in the home,” says Bisgaard.
Cats help children who carry a particular gene
In the new study, Bisgaard, Jakob Stokholm, and three colleagues from COPSAC and Næstved Hospital, Denmark, studied data from 377 Danish children whose mothers have asthma.
They mapped the children’s genes and collected information about their upbringing and surroundings, both by taking samples from the children’s home and by a number of surveys taken by the parents.
The results reveal that cats remove the increased risk of developing asthma among children with a particular variation of the gene 17q21, called TT, which has the strongest impact on whether or not a child could develop asthma.
Almost one in three children in the study carried the TT gene variant, regardless of whether or not their mother had asthma.
No protection from dogs
Interestingly, only cats seem to reduce the risk of developing asthma among children carrying the TT gene variant. Dogs do not have the same effect, say the scientists behind the new study.
Their analyses suggest that cats not only protect against asthma, but also against pneumonia and inflammation in the lower airways of small children (bronchitis).